Brexit - the 2016 referendum on European Union membership

Author:Antonio Goucha Soares
Position:Antonio Goucha Soares - Jean Monnet Professor of European Law, ISEG ? Lisbon School of Economics & Management, Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal,
Studies and Comments
Brexit - the 2016 referendum on European Union membership
Professor Antonio Goucha SOARES1
This article explores the Brexit referendum, focusing on the political events that led
to the vote, namely, the Conservative Party’s retur n to power, David Cameron’s attempts to
appea se the European divide within his par ty and the role played by the British Pa rliament
in the whole process. It then discusses whether the r eferendum was the most suitable way to
decide on European Union membership, considering the sovereignty of the British
Par liament, as well as the contrast between representa tive democracy and direct democracy.
Keywords: Brexit; Europea n Unio n; r eferendum; representa tive democra cy;
United Kingdom.
JEL Classification: K33
1. Introduction
The relationship between the UK and European integration has been
problematic from the beginning. The Hague Congress in 1948 was the first step in
the process of an ever closer Union, for it enabled the creation of the Council of
Europe in London the following year, yet Winston Churchill, who chaired the
Congress, called for the making of a Union between European States in which the
United Kingdom should not take part.
Nor, in the 1950s, did the United Kingdom join the European Economic
Communities, the initiative that would lead to the Treaties of Rome in 1957. On the
contrary, the United Kingdom promoted the European Free Trade Association,
whose aim was to counterbalance the Common Market.
It was only after two failed attempts to join the European Communities in
the 1960s the result of President De Gaulle's veto - that the United Kingdom signed
the Treaty of Accession in 1972, paving the way for the so-called widening of
European integration.
However, the British Parliament’s decision to join the European Common
Market raised strong domestic controversy. As a result, it was submitted to a first
referendum on European membership in 1975. This referendum was called by a
Labor government whose leftwing had opposed the accession to the European
Communities promoted by a Conservative government. The referendum aimed to
appease the distrust towards a large European market among the party's
1 Antonio Goucha Soares - Jean Monnet P rofessor of European Law, ISEG Lisbon School of
Economics & Management, Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal,
520 Juridical Tribune Volume 9, Issue 3, December 2019
constituency, especially the working class vote2. In addition to the Labor leftwing,
the national movements of Scotland and Wales supported the UK’s exit from the
European Communities. However, in an election with an important turnout rate, two-
thirds of voters confirmed European membership (64%).3
The course of the United Kingdom in the European construction has been
marked by a clear singularity, which has placed it in frequent contrast with its
counterparts, particularly with the Franco-German axis4. There are numerous
examples of British identity in the integration process, from the so-called British
rebate of Mrs. Thatcher, to the rejection of the Charter of Fundamental Social Rights
of Workers at the time of the Single European Act, from the refusal of the single
currency in Maastricht, to the rejection of the Schengen Agreement in the 1990s and
the Fiscal Compact during the euro crisis.
Moreover, throughout the deepening of European integration, the United
Kingdom frequently drew red lines against the expansion of European competences,
from the so-called social Europe to common taxation, from the Charter of
Fundamental Rights to the intergovernmental nature of the Common Foreign and
Security Policy. A striking moment in the British perspective was the debate on the
future of the Union launched by German Foreign Minister Fischer, proposing a
European Constitution and conferring a leading role for the European Parliament.
Blair, perhaps the most pro-Europeanist of the heads of government of the United
Kingdom, opposed the British vision of a Europe based on the primacy of the
Member States, with the upgrading of the European Council to the rank of a separate
In a way, the current European Union embodies the limits of the British
consensus in the four decades following the first enlargement. Throughout the
various constitutional agreements, the United Kingdom significantly shaped the
development of European construction. In some cases, the UK’s stubborn position
would in time reveal itself a wise one, as indeed happened with the so-called opting-
out from the economic and monetary union, a provision that would repair it from the
turmoil that hit the eurozone with the 2008 financial crisis.
This article analyzes the Brexit referendum, focusing on the political events
that led to the popular vote. It also aims to answer the following question: was the
referendum the right way to decide on the exit of the United Kingdom from the
European Union, taking into account the principle of the sovereignty of the British
Parliament and the model of representative democracy on which the political system
2 Evans, G., Carl, N., Dennison, J., Brexit: The Ca uses and Consequences of the UK’s Decision to
Leave the EU, in M. Castells et al. (ed.), Europe’s Crises, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018, p. 386.
3 17,37 million votes for European membership (67.2%), against 8,47 million votes for leaving the EEC
4 Matthijs, M., Europe after Brexit. A Less Perfect Union, Foreign Affairs 96, nº1 (2017), p. 93.

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